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Study finds plume generated during laser tattoo removal generally viewed as safe



Results of a new analysis based on benchmarks from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) suggest that the levels of metals and volatile organic compounds generated during laser tattoo removal procedures are generally safe.

Dr. Mathew M. Avram, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston

Dr. Mathew M. Avram

While tattoo removal plume has not been previously studied, an analysis from 2016 found that laser hair removal plume contains toxic compounds, including carcinogens and environmental toxins, underscoring the importance of using smoke evacuators, good ventilation, and respiratory protection. “Ultrafine particles can become lodged in human alveoli in the lungs,” the study’s senior author, Mathew M. Avram, MD, JD, said during a virtual course on laser and aesthetic skin therapy. “This travels over distances, so it is potentially affecting people in your waiting room and others in areas within the clinic.”

For the study of laser tattoo removal plume, Yakir S. Levin, MD, PhD, a dermatologist at the Wellman Center for Photomedicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston; Dr. Avram, director of laser, cosmetics, and dermatologic surgery at MGH; and coinvestigators from NIOSH, conducted air sampling to determine the gaseous, particulate, and microbiological content of laser tattoo removal plume. They performed the study in ex vivo pig skin and in humans undergoing routine laser tattoo removal, and measured ultrafine particulate concentrations, metals, volatile organic compounds, and airborne bacteria.

For the swine portion of the study, they found that levels of metals including aluminum, copper, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, titanium, and zirconium were all below occupational exposure limits. All organic compounds including acetone and benzene were also below occupational exposure limits. “This is different than what we found in the study of laser plume generated during hair removal,” Dr. Avram said. “In laser hair removal, these were all elevated to a concerning extent.”

For the human part of the study, particle concentrations for ultrafine particulates were higher in the dermatologist’s breathing zone and near the tattoo removal site than in the rest of the treatment room or outside of the room. Concentrations were 30 times lower for human skin than for pig skin. “We’re not sure why, but there were higher levels of ultrafine particulates right around the area we treated,” Dr. Avram said. “Still, they were all below exposure limits that would be concerning in terms of NIOSH. So, although they were elevated, they were still considered safe. That was the case for organic compounds as well.”

He pointed out that the study, which was supported by a grant from the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery (ASDS), did not include an analysis of viral particles generated during later tattoo removal “so there is a question about that,” and it is something worth studying, he said.

Dr. Avram, the current president of ASDS, noted that 17% of the estimated 40 million-plus Americans with tattoos have “tattoo regret,” and many turn to dermatologic surgeons for removal, which requires multiple treatments, and is painful and expensive.

Picosecond lasers

“One thing that’s changed in the past several years is the development of picosecond lasers, which produce extraordinarily high energy for an extraordinarily short period of time,” he said at the meeting, named “Laser & Aesthetic Skin Therapy: What’s the Truth?” and sponsored by Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the Wellman Center for Photomedicine. The desired endpoint is dermal whitening with cavitation and rupture. “You don’t want to see splatter with the epidermis flying off,” he said.

Several devices are commercially available with wavelengths of 532, 680, 755, 785, and 1064 nm, and pulse durations ranging from 300 to 750 picoseconds. Nd:Yag lasers target red and black ink, while alexandrite and ruby wavelengths target green and blue ink.

“After the treatment, we use simple Vaseline on top of the tattoo and a nonadherent Telfa dressing with paper tape over it,” Dr. Avram said. For patients with skin of color, he said, “occasionally I will add a steroid. Inflammation and redness can lead to hyperpigmentation. The steroid decreases some of that inflammation and therefore decreases the risk of hyperpigmentation.”

In his clinical experience, picosecond lasers are more effective at tattoo removal than Q-switched nanosecond lasers overall. With a picosecond laser, “you get some nonselective targeting of other pigments such as yellow to improve, even though you really don’t have the correct wavelength. I also think they are more effective for faded tattoos than the Q-switched nanosecond lasers, but they are significantly more expensive, so you need to think about that, and to what extent you are doing tattoo removal. In any event, it’s a multi-treatment process. You do it for multiple weeks between treatments and it takes time and patience. During the consultation, it is crucial to let patients know that.”

In 2012, R. Rox Anderson, MD, director of the Wellman Center for Photomedicine, and colleagues first described the R20 method for tattoo removal, which consists of four consecutive treatment passes with a Q-switched alexandrite laser separated by 20 minutes. “On the first treatment pass, there was an immediate whitening reaction “with little or no whitening on subsequent passes,” said Dr. Avram, who was not involved with the study. “Three months later, treatment with the R20 method was much more effective than conventional single-pass laser treatment. Light microscopy showed greater dispersion of the ink with the R20 method.” A follow-up study conducted at the Wellman Center did not completely support these findings, but a subsequent study led by Suzanne L. Kilmer, MD, was more supportive.

This concept has led to new treatment paradigms for tattoo removal, including the Food and Drug Administration–cleared perfluorodecalin patch, a transparent PFD-infused silicone patch that helps reduce scatter and improves efficacy. “It also allows for performing of repeat laser treatments at the same visit without waiting 20 minutes as you would with the R20 method,” Dr. Avram said. In a pilot study, 11 of the 17 patients showed more rapid clearance with the PFD patch than the control side versus one pass without the PFD patch. “It’s important to note that they used only one wavelength, and some of the tattoos weren’t appropriate for that wavelength, so 11 out of 17 is actually better than it might seem,” he said.

Ablative fractional resurfacing can play a role with tattoo removal, but Dr. Avram typically limits this option to recalcitrant tattoos. “Remember: You’re creating a zone of ablation with a cuff of coagulation, so you’re going to remove some of the tattoo just by creating those areas of clearance and vaporization,” he said. “You can do that in combination with the Q-switched or picosecond laser, which has better efficacy. The best way to do this is to start with the pigment laser – the picosecond or nanosecond laser – and then do the ablative fractional resurfacing afterward. You should never use IPL or laser hair removal lasers to remove tattoos, though. I see that occasionally. You’re going to burn your patients.”

Another approach is to use an Nd:Yag picosecond laser followed by microneedling. “What we’re trying to do here is get an egress of the tattoo pigments,” he explained. “We’re trying to mobilize the ink, get it out of the skin, and get it out of the macrophages to get improvement.”

In 2019, Soliton’s Rapid Acoustic Pulse (RAP) device was cleared by the FDA for tattoo removal. The device is indicated as an accessory to the 1064-nm Q-switched laser for black ink tattoo removal on the arms, legs, and torso in Fitzpatrick skin type I-III individuals. “It’s an application for 1 minute and that allows for additional laser passes,” Dr. Avram said. “You do the laser treatment, you do the acoustic shock wave device, and you do this as multiple passes. This is getting back to the R20 method, the idea that you are going to treat repeatedly. The rapid acoustic pulses result in dispersion and destruction of dermal vacuoles, which enables multiple laser passes in a single treatment session. If you can see the ink, you can ablate the ink.”

Dr. Avram disclosed that he has received consulting fees from Allergan, Merz, and Galderma. He is a member of the scientific advisory board for Allergan and Soliton, is an investigator for Endo, and holds stock options in La Jolla NanoMedical Inc.

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